The White Sox are at least a year away — if they’re lucky — from making any prospect-for-veteran trades with the express purpose of improving the team for the task at hand. But there is one pocket in the White Sox organization where a trade from depth could provide short-term benefits before even factoring in the return.
The White Sox have a whole lot of outfielders around Winston-Salem and Birmingham. That’s a great problem to have, and a couple of injuries prevented the logjam from fully clogging the lanes in 2018.
Ironically, this might be the one area where a luckier season health-wise could create more complications developmentally.
If Micker Adolfo is ready for Opening Day and Luis Robert can stay healthy for the entirety of spring training, the Sox could have five prospects for four spots at Double-A, and that’s before accounting for older guys worth some consideration like Alex Call. There’s also Steele Walker potentially waiting in the wings as another left-handed collegiate hitter who hasn’t yet been eliminated from the center field conversation. I’m mentally assigning him to Winston-Salem for most of 2019 based on his performance this season, but if his inaugural struggles were mostly due to the oblique injury suffered late in the year at Oklahoma, I wouldn’t want to obstruct the rise of a second-round pick.
I could see the White Sox dealing from this cluster, whether to acquire a blocked, MLB-ready prospect at a position of need, or address a shortcoming somewhere else in the farm system. The question is which one, because a rebuild makes it easy to get attached to underpaid minor leaguers who haven’t done anybody dirty, and any trade that backfires would hurt the heart. Fortune favors the bold, though, and with the pitching depth getting ravaged by setbacks, the outfield depth is the one surplus the Sox can use to reallocate resources.
Here’s a rundown of the outfielders who could all be stuck at the same stage, and the cases for and against prioritizing them. Most of them are named “Luis.”
Why keep: He’s the most talented outfielder in the White Sox organization, figures to stick in center, and the White Sox have invested more than $50 million in him. If you’re bullish on him, he’ll get past this cluster of assorted-but-not-chronic injuries and start showing the true breadth of his game in 2019. Even if you’re bearish on him, trying to deal him before he gets a chance to show his skill set would set off all sorts of alarms.
Why trade: If you look at this latest hamstring injury and just see more of it in the future, trading him for 70 cents on the dollar is better than 30 cents.
Why keep: He posted an .800 OPS in a season evenly split between Winston-Salem and Birmingham as a 21-year-old, proving that his down year in 2017 was entirely attributable to a knee that needed addressing. He’s got an encouraging mix of power, speed and patience from a switch-hitter, and I haven’t seen anything about moving him to a corner. He has the cleanest path to Chicago of anybody in this group, especially if he makes the Sox feel comfortable about an early trip to Charlotte.
Why trade: The 27 percent strikeout rate is a career high for any season, although that’s partially a product of being young switch-hitter for the level. Also, he’s already on the 40-man roster and has two options left, so a bad year could complicate things.
Why keep: Finally started showing some of that first-round talent by posting a .293/.345/.436 line at Winston-Salem, hitting more homers in 2018 (seven) than his first 1½ years in pro ball (five). He’s a lefty with a good idea of the strike zone, and whose hit tool shows up against both righties and lefties. He has enough speed to cover center in a pinch for the time being. He’s probably another year away from regaining his previous stock, assuming the uptick in power follows him to Birmingham.
Why trade: His value hinges on continued improvement, because while that line represents progress, skepticism remains about the strength of his contact. His OPS was 100 points highest at home, so the jump to Regions Field in Birmingham will test his muscle. If his slugging percentage drops, there isn’t a compelling corner profile here.
Why keep: Outside of Fernando Tatis Jr., Adolfo is Marco Paddy’s greatest success story. He hit .282/.369/.464 as a 21-year-old even though a bad right elbow confined him to DHing for Winston-Salem. He made major strides in his strike-zone control while losing none of his power while advancing a level. Assuming he’s no worse for the wear after Tommy John surgery and can resume playing right field, I like his chances of making some noise. The surgery makes it difficult to get full value back now, anyway.
Why trade: The 27 percent strikeout rate represents major improvement, but it’s still a profile that could come up empty. Like Robert, if you fear his health record is going to throw him irrevocably off course, sooner is better than later regardless of timing. Like Basabe, he was added to the 40-man roster, so he’ll be down to one option after the season.
Why keep: He’s the argument for loosening the logjam, as he had to spend half the season punching below his weight class at Kannapolis. Still, he hit .300/.358/.491 there, then improved to .313/.376/.504 over 62 games at Winston-Salem. He turned 23 in September, so a season-starting assignment in Birmingham means he’ll have caught up age-wise. He’s clawed his way back into the pack as a lefty with on-base skills, some pop and a chance of sticking in center.
Why trade: He’s 23 and has yet to try Double-A, so he might be operating from a deficit when it comes to remaining development versus remaining projection. Also, unlike Rutherford, Robert and Adolfo, he’d be traded while his game is in full working order. If you believe in Walker’s ability to get going in his first full pro season, he might cover all the same ground while being a year younger.